Feb. 3rd, 2015 08:56 am
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
Rob Hansen, commenting on Making Light (#25 in The joy of continuity), writes:
"I think it was Nick Lowe who called the Marvel and DC universes the largest fictional constructs in human history."

Which suddenly makes me identify Ovid's Metamorphoses as an attempt at rebooting the Greco-Roman franchise....


Sep. 29th, 2010 07:00 pm
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
I'm currently reading Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, in a translation by Natasha Randall. I don't want to talk about the book just yet, but about the translation.

Randall has chosen to leave certain words, mostly of non-Russian origin, untranslated in the text, but with explanatory footnotes. Some idiomatic phrases she translates literally, again with a clarifying footnote. I can see and appreciate her reasons for doing this; but some of the results are... mystifying. For example, footnote 7 to section 1 ("Bela") defines the idiomatic expression "peaceable prince". So does footnote 8 - and the two definitions are significantly different!

Later, note 14 to the same section reads as follows:
chamois: a goatlike animal native to the Caucasus mountains
Granted, the action at that point takes place in the Caucasus, but the chamois is native to most of the mountain chains of southern Europe! (Burton's Mammals of the World specifically says "the Alps, the Apennines, the Carpathians, and Anatolia" - no mention of the Caucasus, unless it is considered part of Anatolia....)

Ah, well. I'm enjoying the reading, in any case.
stoutfellow: (Winter)
To clarify, if it's necessary, these are the books that I read for the first time in 2007 that I enjoyed the most, or got the most out of. I don't think any of them were actually published in '07.

The List )
stoutfellow: Joker (Default)
One for the Money is the first of a series of detective novels by Janet Evanovich. The protagonist, Stephanie Plum, is a thirty-year-old divorcee who, as the book begins, has recently been laid off from her job as a discount lingerie buyer. Struggling to find a job in economically-depressed Trenton, NJ, she finally (and reluctantly) latches on with her cousin Vinnie, a bail bondsman. The filing job she came about has been filled, but there's always a need for skip tracers. Her first big task ("assignment" is the wrong word; Vinnie tries to keep her away from it) involves a cop accused of murder. The cop is an old - what? "Friend" doesn't do it; neither does "enemy", nor yet "acquaintance" - named Joe Morelli, and more than a match for her novice bounty-hunting skills. Not, however, for her determination, as she stumbles into the middle of his own investigation, involving - well, I won't say more, so as not to spoil it, except to mention the psychopathic boxer and his pathetic manager...

It looks to be a fun series. Stephanie's growing pains, as she tries to get used to her new profession, provide much of the interest; obviously, that can't continue for too long into the series, but I'll take it while it lasts. She's no Nora Charles, nor a Miss Marple either, coming as she does from a gritty blue-collar ethnic background. She's not an Amazon, though; when she gets in over her head, she panics (as anyone normal would), although not so much as not to get out again. Her relationship with Morelli seems likely to play a major role in future books; it's too complicated to describe in a brief review, but it's more than a little amusing.

I'm definitely going to continue with this series.
stoutfellow: Joker (Default)
I just finished reading Island of Ghosts, by Gillian Bradshaw. It's a historical novel, set in Roman Britain in the time of Marcus Aurelius, and centers on one of the leaders of a troop of Sarmatians who have been posted there, in the Roman service. It's the first book I've read by Bradshaw, and I found it quite enjoyable. She does a good job of presenting the culture clash between the Romans and the Sarmatians (and, to a lesser extent, the Britons as well); her hero, Ariantes, is intelligent and flexible enough to grasp the Roman way of doing things, at least partly, and to present the Sarmatian point of view in terms the Romans can understand.

Bradshaw's research is fairly solid, as far as I can tell. On the much-disputed question of the stirrup, she comes down on the side of early invention. In an afterword, she writes
I am fully aware that many scholars - principally medievalists - say that stirrups were invented by the Goths in the fourth century A.D. or the Franks in the seventh, or even the Normans in the ninth. I was flabbergasted to discover that they were wrong. If any scholars are reading this, may I beg you to go check the evidence?
Her principal reference on this point is Rostovtzeff's Iranians and Greeks in South Russia, although she also mentions a couple of later books by Tarn and Sulimirski. The Britannica seems to agree, in its articles on Sarmatia and on the spur, but Lynn White, in Medieval Technology & Social Change - yes, a medievalist - writes
N. Vesselovsky orally assured Rostovtzeff that he had excavated stirrups from Sarmatian graves in the Kuban region, but Rostovtzeff did not see these discoveries, nor were they ever published, despite their obvious interest
Now, Rostovtzeff wrote in the 1920s and White in the '60s (and Bradshaw in the '90s); I have no idea what evidence might have been discovered since, but I think Bradshaw is being unfairly harsh. (White, incidentally, credits the Chinese with the invention, though he notes possible unsatisfactory precursors from Central Asia and India.) Still, it's a historical novel, not a history, and a minor anachronism - if it is one - is forgivable.

Quibbles aside, I enjoyed the book and will probably look for more by the author.
stoutfellow: Joker (Default)
The Last Chronicle of Barset is the last and, to my mind, best book in Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series of novels. It is considerably darker than the earlier books, and includes one of his finest and most complex creations in the person of Josiah Crawley, the Perpetual Curate of Hogglestock. Trollope intended it as the capstone of the series (as the very title indicates), and characters from each of the previous books - Septimus Harding, the Grantlys, the Proudies, the Thornes, Luftons, and Dales, and even Johnny Eames and Adolphus Crosbie - play significant roles.

Review )

It's a wonderful book. Appreciation of its full richness probably requires familiarity with the rest of the series, but I suspect it would do well enough as a standalone.
stoutfellow: Joker (Default)
Doctor Thorne is the third book in the "Chronicles of Barset" series, by Anthony Trollope. (The Warden, reviewed here, is the first; the second, Barchester Towers, is quite funny, but I have nothing in particular to say about it.) Its plot is, at bottom, one of the old standbys: two young people fall in love and must overcome various obstacles before they can marry. There isn't a lot of suspense, either; the reader learns fairly early just how those obstacles will be overcome. Nonetheless, the story is quite interesting, as a picture of social conditions in England in the early Victorian period.

Details )
stoutfellow: Joker (Default)
It feels a bit odd to be reviewing a book that was published a century and a half ago. On the other hand, Anthony Trollope is not that well known these days (although there was a brief flurry of interest in his Palliser novels a couple of decades ago), and The Warden is not one of his best-known works.

Wotthehell. I feel like talking about it, OK?

The plot )

It's a short book and a relatively uneventful one, but the main characters are memorable, and I enjoyed it as much on this rereading as I did the first time through, some thirty years ago.
stoutfellow: (Murphy)
Before today, I'd never read Little Women. I have no particular aversion to "classics", nor does the verbosity of most nineteenth-century English literature bother me; I'd just never gotten around to this one.

It's a comfortable read, a thoroughly domestic coming-of-age story. The three older girls - Meg, Jo, and Amy - are reasonably well-drawn, each with her own distinctive personality, and the problems each faces while growing up are consistent with their already-drawn characters. Unfortunately, most of the other characters (Laurie is an exception) are rather cardboard. Beth is a little angel; her main flaw is an excessive timidity, which is resolved for the most part through the friendliness of Mr. Laurence. After that, her only function is to serve as a focus for sympathy, as she slowly weakens and finally dies. Mrs. March is a fount of wisdom, and never seems to put a foot wrong; Mr. March is offstage for much of the book and might as well have been so for its entirety. Mr. Laurence is allowed one misstep, in his quarrel with Laurie; once that is patched up, he is a Kindly Uncle and little more. Mr. Bhaer is allowed no faults either, if one excepts his suspicions regarding Jo's friendship with Laurie.

The book is on the didactic side. That's not a fatal flaw, to be sure, but Alcott is a bit heavy-handed with the moralizing in the early going. (I enjoyed Pilgrim's Progress, but using it as an allegorical model for the temptations and tribulations of the March girls is a bit much.) She moderates it later on, with only occasional lapses, and I think the book improves substantially.

I'm not saying that it's a bad book. Alcott is at her best, I think, in describing incidents: the boating-party, the early problems with disciplining Meg's son, and a number of other scenes are quite enjoyable. She's also fairly good at capturing the emotional turmoil of adolescence and young adulthood - best, of course, with Jo, who seems to be a picture of Alcott herself. But as a whole I didn't find the book particularly gripping. I doubt I'll ever reread it. It's possible that I'll go on to the sequels someday, but not soon.

That done, I've decided to go ahead and read the entirety of Trollope's Chronicles of Barset. I know that I've read The Warden and Barchester Towers, but I don't think I've ever made it through the other four volumes. (One early note: the bedchamber conversation between the Archdeacon and his wife, near the beginning of The Warden, reminded me irresistably of Dr. and Mrs. Abbott, from Everwood; I could easily see Tom Amandes and Merrilyn Gann playing those roles in a film adaptation. Not that I think a film of The Warden would go over well; the issues the story deals with aren't likely to find much resonance in today's USA. But I could be wrong - and I'd certainly watch it!)
stoutfellow: (Murphy)
I recently finished Dorothy Dunnett's Scales of Gold, the fourth book in the House of Niccolo series. As with all of her works (at least, those I've read so far), it's an intricate and well-researched book. I'm not going to fully review the book; I don't think any book from one of her series can be properly evaluated without reading the entire series, which I obviously haven't done. But I do have a few minor quibbles.

1) At one point, Niccolo, arguing some point against his followers, notes that he approves of democracy (but he's still going to do what he thinks best). Would a fifteenth-century merchant express such an opinion? I really doubt it; to the best of my knowledge, the word didn't shed its negative connotations until the late eighteenth century. I may be wrong, and if I am I'd appreciate enlightenment.

2) During the trip across West Africa, the travellers are described as, at one point, subsisting on maize. This threw me, since the story is set in the 1460s. Checking the dictionary, though, I find that the word "maize" is also used to refer to milo, which is a common grain in Africa - and originated there, so the pre-Columbian issue doesn't come up. But the same dictionary derives the word "maize" ultimately from Taino, a Caribbean language. It's not indefensible, but it's a false step, I think.

3) This is more a matter of feel, but I don't see the final revelation concerning Gelis as being quite in character for her. I can see that she might want some sort of revenge against Simon, but taking this route seems odd. If she expected Niccolo to be pleased with it, she really doesn't understand him - and her whole development in the novel goes against that. If she didn't expect him to be pleased, well, her feelings are considerably more conflicted than I perceived. The last is not unusual for a Dunnett character, I will admit.

Meanwhile, I've begun reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, and I also gave a quick reread to Margaret Ball's Lost in Translation. The former is a very thick book, and I began it with some trepidation, but the style is light and fluent, and I'm enjoying it quite a bit. (Haven't gotten more than about a dozen pages in yet, though.) The Ball, like most of hers that I've read, is not much more than mind candy. (The only works of hers with any substance that I've read are Flameweaver, Changeweaver, and - perhaps - No Earthly Sunne.)
stoutfellow: (Murphy)
And that's it for summer semester. (Well, almost; my IS student hasn't turned in his second paper yet. If it's not at my office when I go in tomorrow, he's toast.)

[ profile] puppybreak generally isn't as good as [ profile] kittenbreak, but the last two, hot dog and fluffy, have been very cute.

I just finished a P. G. Wodehouse marathon, reading everything of his that I had in the house: The World of Jeeves, The Code of the Woosters, Thank You, Jeeves, Psmith Journalist, and Leave It to Psmith. I previously wrote that I preferred the last to the Jeeves/Wooster stories, but I think I'd like to (as the congresscritters say) revise and extend my remarks.

Set Psmith Journalist aside immediately. It's a very early and inferior work; apart from the very beginning and the very end, it's scarcely recognizable as Wodehouse; otherwise, it's not much more than a serviceable story about muckraking.

Leave It to Psmith is stylistically very different from the Jeeves/Wooster stories. In particular, it's told in third person omniscient style. This has advantages for the kind of story PGW is telling here; we get to see all the different schemes as they develop - Joe conspiring with Freddy, Freddy with Psmith, Joe with Eve, Cootes with Lizzie - and enjoy their multiple collisions, as people who should be allies get in each other's way, and people who should be enemies inadvertently help each other. Once things get moving, it goes like a string of firecrackers. But it takes so bloody long to get started; roughly half of the book is spent on developing the characters and getting them all out to Blandings Castle. I find myself somewhat less pleased with it this time, especially in such close conjunction with the Jeeves/Wooster stories.

The latter stories are all told in first person; Bertie is the narrator in all but one case, a short story narrated by Jeeves. The shorts tend to be much of a muchness after a while; reading a Wodehouse anthology at one or a few gulps has the same numbing effect as doing the same to, say, Saki. The two novels give Wodehouse room to stretch, to interweave plot lines with some measure of complexity. He doesn't achieve the same intricacy as in Leave It to Psmith, but filtering everything through poor silly Bertie's eyes allows other storylines to arrive with a bit more surprise. An attentive reader may not be quite as surprised as Bertie, but that's part of the fun too. Thank You, Jeeves is, unfortunately, marred by some casual racism - admittedly, only so much as would be appropriate to the setting (mid-'30s Britain), but still a little disruptive. But The Code of the Woosters is very fine indeed. I have to reverse myself in part: that novel is definitely superior to Leave It to Psmith.


Jul. 6th, 2004 07:09 pm
stoutfellow: (Murphy)
In the last couple of days, I've finished In the Bleak Midwinter, Jurgen, and Brief Lives. The next fiction on the list is John Barnes' A Million Open Doors.

I am told that one of the pleasures of reading in the mystery genre is the intellectual one of picking up on the author's clues and working out what is going on before The Great Reveal. Alas, this pleasure is one I rarely achieve. There have been exactly two occasions on which I've been able to figure things out ahead of time - both, oddly, science-fictional mysteries - and in both cases my pride was rather dashed, later, by reviews which sniffed that the secret was telegraphed early on. Thus, in evaluating a mystery, I must fall back on such mundanities as plot, characterization, and dialog. I am pleased to report that Julia Spencer-Fleming's In the Bleak Midwinter scores well in these respects. (I leave to others to say whether it also succeeds as an intellectual puzzle.)

In the Bleak Midwinter )


stoutfellow: Joker (Default)

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